Reeling under a prolonged spell of recession caused by intermittent closure of theatres and studios due to the pandemic lockdowns, Bollywood finally went into celebration mode in November last year, with Rohit Shetty’s Sooryavanshi collecting Rs 200 crore at the ticket counters. Industry honchos took its box office figures as a veritable indicator of the return of the good old days.
Soon, the moribund multiplexes bounced back to life with long queues for advance booking of Kabir Khan’s 83. With B-town’s top-selling pair—Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone—in lead roles, in a movie based on India’s historic triumph in the cricket World Cup in England, that the film would make record-breaking business was a foregone conclusion.
Amid rising expectations over the high-profile Hindi film, Bollywood chose to ignore Pushpa: The Rise, which was released a week before 83 hit the screens. Since it was a Telugu film dubbed in Hindi, with Southern stars such as Allu Arjun, Rashmika Mandana and Fahadh Faasil—who had no track record in Hindi cinema—nobody took it seriously.
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Bollywood had apparently taken the successes of the previous releases of Hindi dubs of Telugu hits, such as Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) and its sequel, Baahubali: The Conclusion (2017), as well as the Kannada superhit, KGF Chapter 1 (2018), to be nothing but flukes.
What happened thereafter stunned everyone. The much-hyped 83, promoted by cricket legends like Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar, tanked at the turnstiles. Worse still, it was yanked off many theatres to increase the number of screens for Pushpa, as its demand rose steadily across the Hindi belt. A dubbed South Indian film had left the big-budget Bollywood marquee miles behind in its trail.
Pushpa’s Hindi version alone went on to earn over Rs 100 crore, while its worldwide collection crossed Rs 350 crore in just about six weeks. Allu Arjun, who played the title role, emerged as a pan-India superstar, with cow belt audiences going berserk over his action and dance sequences, just the way their counterparts did on the Telugu heartthrob’s home turf in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
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Cinema halls of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh had not witnessed such scenes in years. Suddenly, the great cultural Vindhyas that stood between the cinemas of the North and the South—which had shown some cracks after Baahubali and KGF Chapter 1—seemed to be caving in.
It took Bollywood quite some time for the reality—that Pushpa’s success was no flash in the pan—to sink in. Whatever doubts remained over the pan-India appeal of dubbed South Indian movies, got dispelled in the next few weeks, with the humongous success of two more dubbed films—S.S. Rajamouli’s Telugu venture RRR (2022) and Prashant Neel’s Kannada actioner, KGF Chapter 2 (2022). Released after Pushpa, both set new records by collecting over Rs 1,000 crore each worldwide at the box office.
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Curiously, even as the stocks of dubbed Southern movies soared, several high-profile Hindi films, from Akshay Kumar’s Bachchan Pandey and Amitabh Bachchan’s Jhund, to Ajay Devgn’s Runway 34, Shahid Kapoor’s Jersey, Tiger Shroff’s Heropanti 2 and Ranveer Singh’s Jayeshbhai Jordaar, bit the dust at the box office, casting a cloud over Bollywood’s longstanding dominance in the pan-Indian stakes. Questions are now being asked if the Hindi film industry has lost to its Southern counterparts once and for all.
The jury is still out. Trade analyst Taran Adarsh believes that cinema from the Southern industries has always been like this—high on entertainment and honest to its audiences. “It is Bollywood that seems to have lost its track somewhere on its way,” he tells Outlook. “I won’t say that it is happening only now. It certainly got an impetus with the Baahubali series and Pushpa.”
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According to Adarsh, Bollywood used to make films for the pan-Indian audience in the 70s and 80s, with Amitabh Bachchan, Jeetendra and Dharmendra in the lead. But with time, they started making metro-centric films that appealed only to the urban audience. “Bollywood forgot that it had left the all-India audience starved of entertainment. The South didn’t. Unlike Hindi cinema, they have maintained a great balance between meaty cinema and entertainment films,” he says.
Adarsh has a point. It’s not that South Indian films have not done great business across the country before. Films like Nayakan, Roja, Hey Ram, Bombay, Sivaji: The Boss, Vishwaroopam, Robot, etc., have all been hits across the country in the past three or four decades. But in the last few years, South Indian films have upped the ante. Films like Baahubali: The Beginning, Baahubali: The Conclusion, Robot 2.0, KGF: Chapter 1, Saaho, Pushpa: The Rise, RRR and KGF: Chapter 2, have broken records in the pan-Indian market. So, what has actually brought about this change?
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Manish Shah of Goldmines Telefilms, known for dubbing popular regional films in Hindi,asserts that Bollywood has paid the price for ditching family audiences. “Several Hindi movies can’t be watched with the family nowadays, because of excessive nudity and foul language.
But Southern films still cater to family audiences,” he says.
Vijay Dingari, COO, Oracle Movies, agrees, “What I see is that movies from Bollywood are multiplex centric. The story, the concept, the plot, etc., goes well with city audiences. But, when it comes to small towns—the B and C centres—I feel they fail.”
Film distributor Sameer Dixit of Pickle Entertainment, says audiences are looking for entertainment, and want their heroes to have a certain attitude. “But this has gone missing in the Bollywood films of late. Films from the South still have that, and that’s why audiences are not bothered whether they know or identify with the star in the film or not. That’s why these films are doing so well.”
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Director Sashi Kiran Tikka, who is gearing up for the release of his film Major, starring actor Adivi Sesh, says the natural feeling in every filmmaker is that ‘this is something that can go universal’. “All stories that can cross the language barrier, can go places,” he says. “If you look at the films Rajamouli made before Baahubali, all of them had a universal appeal. They all have something that everyone accross India can connect with.”
Come to think of it, Pushpa was exactly the kind of masala entertainer that Bollywood had perfected in the 70s and 80s. From Trishul (1977) and Laawaris (1981) to Agneepath (1990), Bollywood made several anti-hero films like Pushpa that featured a rebel protagonist out to avenge the injustices meted out to his mother. Themes like smuggling had also been done to death in that era.
Pushpa, therefore, was at best like old wine served in a shining bottle, with a new label. Yet, thanks to its tight screenplay, popular dialogues, breathtaking visuals, scintillating action, and song-and-dance sequences, it left audiences clamouring for more, regardless of the language barrier. Audiences in small towns of North India could instantly relate to the film and its protagonist.
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In Pushpa, for one, the audience found their lost superhero. Allu Arjun’s onscreen mannerisms, like running his fingers around his neck, coupled with signature dialogues—“Pushpa jhukega nahi (Pushpa will not budge)”—may seem over-the-top to new-age filmmakers and actors in Bollywood, but the audiences lapped it up like crazy.
Today, Allu Arjun of Pushpa fame is not the only Southern star to have proven his mettle at the national level, without ever having stepped into Bollywood. Others, such as Prabhas and Mahesh Babu, have huge fan followings everywhere. Mahesh Babu has been refusing offers from Mumbai for years. If fact, his recent remark that “Bollywood can’t afford him”, had left Hindi movie moguls seething.
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For Mahesh Babu, it is not the language of the films, but the love of the audience that matters, irrespective of their provenance. “I don’t think South or Bollywood matters, as long as your work reaches the audience,” he says.
Interestingly, the nationwide success of dubbed movies appears to have bridged the gap between Bollywood and South Indian cinemas. As of now, Vijay Sethupathi will be seen in Merry Christmas with Katrina Kaif, while Vijay Deverakonda is making his debut in Liger, opposite Ananya Pandey. Similarly, there are many South films, in which famous Bollywood actors have starred. Rajamouli’s RRR starred Ajay Devgn and Alia Bhatt, while KGF: Chapter 2 had Sanjay Dutt and Raveena Tandon. Also, Nagarjuna will soon be seen on screen with Amitabh Bachchan for the first time after Khuda Gawah (1992) in the Ranbir Kapoor-starrer Brahmastra. Nagarjuna’s son Nag Chaitanya is also making his Hindi debut in Aamir Khan’s upcoming release, Laal Singh Chaddha.
Actress Raashii Khanna, who has a long list of successful Telugu and Malayalam films to her credit, says she is grateful to be working in an era when female actors are also getting bigger opportunities and better roles. “I enjoy my work even more now, because it has gone beyond the looks. I can finally feel the actor in me growing... Cinema has crossed language barriers with the coming of OTT platforms, reaching more people and whetting the audience’s appetite with various genres,” says Khanna, who recently made her Bollywood debut in a leading role with the crime thriller Rudra.
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But then, can Bollywood take any lessons from the growing popularity of South Indian cinema in Hindi-speaking regions? According to actress Kangana Ranaut, both the content and the superstars of South Indian cinemas are so popular because they are rooted in Indian culture. “No one can match their dedication and passion for work,” she says.
Tamil film producer P. Jayendra, who made Navarasa with Mani Ratnam recently, says when people had to sit at home during the lockdown, they had the opportunity to discover content across all Indian languages. “People started enjoying good content regardless of the language they originated in, supported by dubbing and subtitles. It is this phenomenon that has been carried to cinema halls today. People are ready to view content regardless of where it is from, or the language,” he adds.
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Be that as it may, the big question for Bollywood now is whether it will have a bearing on the future of Hindi remakes of South Indian films? There have been countless remakes of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam films since the black and white era of cinema, which have proven to be money-spinners for Bollywood. Salman Khan’s Wanted (2008) and Bodyguard (2011), and Shahid Kapoor’s Kabir Singh (2018) were among recent hit remakes. Given the nationwide success of dubbed movies, will the South Indian filmmakers and actors now stop giving remake rights to Hindi producers? Filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma already thinks so, saying that no filmmaker from the South is going to sell the rights of his film to Bollywood now.
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So how will Bollywood fend off this challenge? Writer and director Sanjiv Jaiswal, known for his films on socio-political topics, says, “The basic problem with Bollywood is that nowadays, no one is making films. They are all busy making ‘projects’. In the 70s and 80s, a lot of creative work was produced when writers, directors, producers, music directors, etc., sat together to discuss a story. There was confidence in each for the other’s work. But now that’s lost.”
Adarsh feels there is still a chance for Bollywood to regain its past glory. “I think it’s a temporary phase, and Bollywood will bounce back. But it has to make movies that should not merely cater to the audiences living between Versova and Bandra.”
(This appeared in the print edition as "Southern Surge")
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